English Touring Opera’s Verdi title for their Spring season in this composer’s (and Wagner’s) anniversary year is one of no small ambition. Premièred to only modest success in Venice in 1857, it would take Verdi another 20 or so years to return to Simon Boccanegra to try to fix the old “wobbly table” (as he and his librettist, Boito, later dubbed the 1857 version). Launched in a thoroughly revised version at La Scala, Milan in 1881, the work remained relatively unpopular with audiences for many years. Although it has now gained a central place in the operatic repertory, its monster demands on some of the principals, as well as on the heavily-exploited brass section of the orchestra, make it a tough enterprise for any opera company to undertake.

Craig Smith (Simon Boccanegra) © Richard Hubert Smith
Craig Smith (Simon Boccanegra)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Some of the casting decisions in the current ETO production, directed by James Conway, are slightly problematic. It was not without reason that, time and again, Verdi warned of the importance of finding two first-class singers for the parts of Simon and Fiesco, performers suited both musically and dramatically to their roles. Boccanegra, after all, hardly makes any sense when it comes to the plot, and is also an opera notably sparing in its use of spectacle and accessible, tuneful singing (a few exceptional moments aside). If you are unable to create dramatic tension, you find yourself with little left. Craig Smith (Simon) and Keel Watson (Fiesco) certainly did what they could to surmount the huge obstacles of Verdi’s writing, yet their voices and stage presence fell short of the demands of their roles. Smith may look slightly older than his part, particularly in the Prologue (the rest of the action takes place after 25 years have passed), but what he lacks above all is that warmth and controlled ardour of the voice which the part of Simon requires. While he sang powerfully at key moments, his tone sounded hoarse in some of the softer passages. Watson’s Fiesco encountered similar problems due to his too baritonal voice (Verdi asks for a basso profondo, i.e. a low bass), which exposed him dangerously on many of the lower notes. Both principals were frequently unconvincing in terms of characterisation, appearing either too stiff or not commanding enough.

Conway’s production, supported by Samal Blak’s bare, “ship-smelling” set designs, is, nevertheless, charming overall. The director argues for it being set in Italy after WWII (the Prologue) and during the subsequent “Years of Lead” (Acts I to III), even if there are few overt allusions to the period (the most obvious is the rendering of the riot of the grand Council Chamber Scene in a 1970s terrorist fashion). Scene changes are quick and easy, as the bulk of the sets remain untouched. A greenish, beamed, wooden floor recalls the skeleton of a ship’s hull and similarly evocative pillars occasionally appear on the two sides of the stage. Well-chosen lighting effects convey the shifting emotional colours of the drama, and above all pervade it with that sea-atmosphere which is so tightly embedded in Verdi’s music (and represented by a model yacht hanging over the stage). It is just a shame that this stripped-down set design – as well as, at times, the decision to keep the chorus at the margins, even in mass scenes – drew still greater attention to the principals’ acting.

The opening night of ETO’s Boccanegra was no doubt enlivened by the performances of Charne Rochford and Elizabeth Llewellyn. The first was a rightly exuberant, resonant Adorno, and the second a sensational Amelia, who dispatched her passages with sentiment and confidence throughout. Co-ordination between the stage and the pit was not always of the highest standard, and the music could, perhaps, have achieved greater momentum had conductor Michael Rosewell placed a bit more emphasis on some of the changes in tempo between the various sections of Verdi’s extended numbers. For all that, with so much to tell us of yearning loves and heartfelt political passions, Simon Boccanegra remains – regardless of any flaws in its musical realisation – an opera for our times.